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The Echoes of Eugenics: Lord of the Rings and the Value of Human Life

May 23rd, 2007 | 1 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In a recent column in the Washington Post, Andrew J. Imparato and Anne C. Sommers highlight the subtle ways in which eugenics has made a comeback:

Some 72 years later, renowned embryologist Bob Edwards said, "Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children."

Not long ago, an embryo entrepreneur boasted on her business's Web site, "In the process of screening donors, we select only those that have clean medical backgrounds. . . . The embryos that are available have all been medically 'graded,' so that the recipient family knows the quality of the embryos that they will be implanting."

The concept of eugenics seems to depend upon the premise that as humans, we have a complete grasp of what sorts of lives are valuable, and which sorts of lives are invaluable. Hence, we can screen for diseases such as Downs syndrome in our attempt to eliminate lives that would be plauged by it.
But the idea that humans are the arbiters of value depends upon the notion that humans are capable of seeing the end or purpose of every life. In this, eugenics is nothing less than Satan's original lie--omniscience--clothed in modern garb and allied with technological power. When Frodo claims that Gollum deserves death, it is Gandalf who admonishes him:

Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

Our preconceptions of what sorts of lives are valuable and what are not must be tempered by our inability to see the future and to see the workings of Providence in the world. We are not the arbiters of our own fate, and so such not be the arbiters of others'. Like Gollum, even the most disadvantaged among us may have some key role to play in the story. At the least, they will teach us to have mercy. (HT: SecondHand Smoke).

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.